When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Pastor Marc's sermon on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (November 17, 2019) on Luke 21:5-19. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
So for today’s sermon, I’m going to do something I don’t usually do: and that’s use a sermon illustration based on a movie I haven’t seen. But there’s a chance you have because the film, Wild Rose, came out over the summer. According to Rottentomatoes.com, Wild Rose is about a Scottish woman, fresh out of prison, who struggles balancing her job and her two children with her dream to become a country music star before ending up in Nashville, Tennessee. I’m hoping once my family takes a break from watching Marvel Superhero Movies for the 10,000 time - to actually watch this film because one of its songs is expected to win the Oscar. But what really fascinated me about Wild Rose wasn’t its plot or its actors. Rather, what struck me was the unlikely story of how its Oscar caliber song came into being. And that story doesn’t begin with the movie script or with some amazing songwriting team tinkering for hours in a music studio. Instead, that story begins in a hospital room, 10 years ago, when Oscar winning actress Mary Steenburgen, woke up after having a minor surgery on her arm. As the anesthesia wore off, she realized something was a bit off because her brain, her mind, and what she knew about who she had suddenly changed.
Now, you might know Mary Steenburgen from her Oscar winning role in the 1980 film “Melvin and Howard.” Or, if you’re already getting ready for Christmas, she’s also Buddy’s step-mom in the movie Elf. For the last 40 years, being an actor was who she was. She obsessed over the craft and she worked hard at her vocation. But in that hospital room ten years ago, what made her who she was, changed. As she said in an article I read this week, “The best way I can describe it is that it just felt like my brain was only music, and that everything anybody said to me became musical. All of my thoughts became musical. Every street sign became musical. I couldn’t get my mind into any other mode.” Mary’s new reality was completely unexpected and it really scared her. She didn’t know what to do. So after a few months living in this new way, Mary did the only thing she could do to help tame the loudness of her new musical mind: she started learning to play an instrument. And she also bugged one of her friends to help turn the music she heard in her head into actual songs. It wasn’t long before she cut her first demos, sent them off to music executives, and found herself living out her new mode, her new reality, in Nashville as a professional songwriter.
Today’s text from the gospel according to Luke is sometimes called Luke’s “Little Apocalypse.” And we call it that because Jesus’ words are, well, spooky. He mentioned a lot of things that might keep us awake at night - such as the fear of war, violence, famine, and other natural disasters. He also named the different ways we use religion to deceive one another and how even families can betray each other. Nothing Jesus said here was very specific but it’s hard not to see all the chaos around us and think that Jesus was speaking to us today. I do think that when it comes to Luke’s Little Apocalypse, Jesus does have a message for us. But to understand what he’s really saying, we need to pay attention to where Jesus was when he first spoke these words.
Now, at this point in Luke’s version of Jesus’ life, Jesus was nearing his final to the Cross. He had already shifted his ministry away from the Sea of Galilee in Northern Israel and moved into the city of Jerusalem. While there, he spent quite a bit of time preaching and teaching in the massive religious complex that was the Temple. The Temple, by this point, was recently renovated. One of the old puppet kings - Herod the Great - who was given his power by the Roman Empire, had expanded the Temple, using blocks of stone weighing over 100 tons to fill in the original valley that limited just how big the Temple could be. Herod wanted to use the rebuilding of the Temple as a way to help his brand, hoping his name would be a symbol for what was rich and powerful. For the disciples following Jesus, many who grew up in small rural villages, the Temple in Jerusalem would have been physically overwhelming. It would have appeared to be so powerful, strong, and mighty and it served as a visual reminder of how awesome people needed God to be. For them, God needed a sanctuary worthy of being given grand gifts and it needed to look as if it could withstand whatever nature and humanity threw at it. God’s Temple needed to turn God into a brand where God would, in a contest, over power the opponent and win. Jesus’ disciples, I think, expected Jesus to operate in the same way. They had, for three years, watched as Jesus casted out demons, healed the sick, and fed thousands with a handful of loaves and fishes. Jesus disciples expected him to embody and show how God’s strength and power meant that he would win in all situations. The disciples, though, were a little realistic so they tolerated some hardship and struggle. But they believed that would only be in the short term. They expected Jesus, through a kind of divine power and force, would help them dominate and win at life. But Jesus would surprise them by showing us - that this God-with-us - would instead show us how to live through our life instead.
When we listen to Jesus’ words in Luke’s Little Apocalypse, we notice that he wasn’t really trying to predict some specific events happening 2000 years into the future. Rather, Jesus was challenging those who followed him to no longer let our expectations of God stop us from living the life God has already given to us. The life we have is never going to be perfect. And it will be filled with conflict, challenge, and fear. We will find ourselves, whether we plan to or not, causing harm to those around us through the actions we or our wider culture takes. We will end up living through things we never truly wanted to experience in the first place. And Jesus wasn’t afraid to tell us how life can be hard. But in the midst of that challenge, he also gave us a promise. He said, through the gift of faith and the gift of baptism, he will give us a new vision of how we can look at our lives. Like Mary Steenburgen, who woke up to find herself living in the world in a new way, Jesus’ words remind us that our faith opens us to the possibility that we can, through Jesus, truly live. We can live knowing that brokenness will be a part of our lives but it won’t be the final word. We can live knowing that we will sometimes get things very right and also very wrong but that mercy can be the default of everything that we do. And we can live knowing that doubt, worry, and fear will always be with us - but that Jesus will lead us into joy and peace. Even when it feels as if the foundation of our life is giving way, Jesus will be there - feeding us his words and his life with grace and mercy. The promise of the apocalypse is that our expectations and assumptions will not be the final world. Because, through Christ, God’s expectations are already being written in our world and we are here to live as if there truly is a new song of hope, forgiveness, and love that will become true mode for our lives and the world.
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